Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice
The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films

By Hongmei Yu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no.2 (Spring 2013), pp. 168-218

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, zhuxuanlü or “main melody” films, either produced with financial backing by the government or sanctioned by governmental film awards, have been vigorously promoted in China. They have played an important role in accomplishing the ideological transition from socialism to post-socialism and in reinforcing the Communist Party’s legitimacy to rule, especially through their relentless cinematic rewriting of history, one of the most significant characteristics of Chinese cultural industry in the post-1989 era. This essay examines three main melody films made in the 1990s: Dajuezhan (Great decisive war), a ten-hour trilogy about the three military campaigns launched by the Communists to defeat the Nationalists during the civil war; Wode 1919 (My 1919), which recalls one important historical moment, the Versailles Peace Conference after WWI, in a highly personalized memoir style; and Likai Lei Feng de rizi (Days without Lei Feng), which depicts how an ordinary person inherits the spirit of the selfless socialist hero Lei Feng and carries out good deeds in post-socialist China. While The Great Decisive War deploys a distinctive epic style to retell the history of revolution, both My 1919 and Days without Lei Feng feature individual personal experience, and all shed light on the unprecedented ideological ambiguities, contradictions, and uncertainties in 1990s China. The author argues that the co-existence of different historical narratives in these main melody films offers a vital clue to examine the post-socialist transition towards depoliticization and consumerism, particularly in terms of how different historical narratives work together to cancel and conceal a then-revolutionary but now-sensitive cinematic representation of the mass action. Since the late 1990s, the growing trend of replacing zhuxuanlü with xinzhuliu or “new mainstream” indicates that main melody films have completed their ideological mission.